Confession. We know the word. It's an important word in Christianity. We say it’s a necessary step in receiving salvation. We urge toward accountability through it.
But what about it’s place in worship?
Sure, some of us believe it has it's proper place in a worship service. In fact, there have been times when some haven taken the idea of confession so seriously that their services could be described more as penitential and somber rather than celebratory. Then there are others in more recent times who use confession in worship about the same as they do a harpsichord. They don't really have a place for it in worship the structure or flow of their services.
I would guess that many of us actually fall somewhere between these two extremes. Perhaps in our services, confession has its time and place, but it does not continue to be a weekly act or element of worship in our services. For us, this begs the question – should it be? What do we lose when we eliminate confession as part of worship? What do we gain when it is part of worship?
Here is one of the standard prayers of confession that has been used throughout the history of the church, taken specifically from the Book of Common Prayer:
Almighty and most merciful Father,
We have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep.
We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.
We have offended against your holy laws.
We have left undone what we ought to have done,
And we have done what we ought not to have done,
And there is no health in us.
Yet, good Lord, have mercy on us:
Restore those who are penitent,
According to your promises declared to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.
And grant, merciful Father, for his sake,
That we may live a godly, righteous, and obedient life,
To the glory of your holy name. Amen.
Isaiah 6 paints a vivid picture of an encounter with God. As God is revealed, Isaiah’s initial response is confession, both for himself and for his people. Isaiah states that he is a “man of unclean lips" who "lives among a people of unclean lips” (see Isaiah 6:5). I have always understood this confession, as well as any confession I make in worship, to be understood in terms of the sins of what I have done. Because I do wrong things, (done what I ought not to have done), I am in need of confession before God.
Certainly, this is true. However, in Matthew 25, Jesus leaves us with something other to consider. As C.S. Lewis writes in his book Reflection on the Psalms, “We pray for God to deliver us ‘in the hour of death and at the day of judgement’. Christian art and literature for centuries have depicted its terrors. This note in Christianity certainly goes back to the teaching of Our Lord Himself; especially to the terrible parable of the Sheep and the Goats. This can leave no conscience untouched, for in it the ‘Goats’ are condemned entirely for their sins of omission; as if to make us fairly sure that the heaviest charge against each of us turns not upon the things he has done but on those he never did—perhaps never dreamed of doing” (9).
We have left undone what we ought to have done… forgive us, Lord.
Lewis, C.S. Reflections on the Psalms: The Celebrated Musings on One of the Most Intriguing Books of the Bible. London: Harvest Books, 1986.